I promised you a rose garden

One of the many benefits of travel is meeting new people. One of the many drawbacks of travel is meeting new people. 

I’m on a day trip to the mountain city of Taif, some 80 kms south of Jeddah and 6,000 feet higher, which as I have already mentioned makes this a far more pleasant climate. Jeddah at sea level is a hot and humid city. At this time of year, March, it is bearable but as each week progresses it is getting hotter which is ok, but it is also getting a little more humid, which is not. We all know humid. It’s that sticky sweaty feeling that engulfs you as soon as you set foot into the sun. In really hot countries, even your sweat perspires. Little trickles flow down your back to nestle uncomfortably in between your butt cheeks. Hot air gets trapped within any clothing thats tighter than a flimsy piece of cotton. It is probably better for men to let the beef and two veg swing free than to be nestled tightly into one’s Y fronts. It is better if, when doing this, you also wear some very loose trousers as the sight of the two bells of the pink belfry swinging in unison as one walks is too much information, and in Saudi Arabia probably contravenes the laws of modesty. Well, at least that’s what I think the policeman was saying.  

The heat sink that is Jeddah traps the air, mixes it with traffic fumes and the exhaust vents from a hundred thousand air conditioning units so that every breath you take is an admixture of oxygen, diesel particulates and the sweat infused water vapour from a million bodies, some of whom have dubious personal hygiene habits so that in reality you might as well be sticking your nose into someone’s festering arm pits. The airborne bacterial, viral and particulate count is enough to blot out the sun, if you have the imagination to think of it. As with many situations we find ourselves, being immersed in it renders one insensitive to its oppression. The only clue to the poor quality of the air you might encounter is when you sneeze into a tissue, only to discover that your nasal passages have been home to a billion bacteria which by now have taken on the hue of a slag heap of coal with the viscosity of crude oil. Billions of folk live in cities like this around the globe, millions die prematurely because of it. So, if you live on Dartmoor, the West of Cornwall or on the top of Ben Nevis, take a good long lungful and thank whatever god you use that you are lucky enough to still be alive. 

Anyway, Taif is not Jeddah. And we are now off to see the Rose oil factory.

The ‘we’ in question, in addition to Catherine my colleague from work, includes the small party gathered for breakfast. The “Saudipinos” as they call themselves, two very sweet and charming filipino ladies from Riyadh, Anastasia the English nurse from Dammam whose smile is one of life’s joys and should be in everyones’ lives, and about 6 others I have not had the chance to talk to.  Three of them are distinctive, each for a very different reason. They appear to have come together as a group, two chaps and woman, all in their thirties I would guess. By their body language two are a couple. I’ll let you decide which two. 

The factory is short drive away and so we go in a little convoy. When I say factory, don’t think of a huge industrial estate the size of Wales. This turns out to be a small estate with tin roofed distillery sheds and a rose garden. When we park, there is no obvious factory to be seen. Instead a high white perimeter wall greets us. There are grand villas surrounding us on three sides, a cat sleeping in a skip and a scattering of plastic bottles and litter gently blowing in the dust. It is very warm rather than stupidly hot, literally a breath of fresh air. The streets are empty, devoid of traffic and of people, and so we can hear the constant chatter of mynah birds and the slow brewing of cardamom infused arabic coffee. A door opens out onto the street and a black haired black bearded old gentleman who has seen the best part of six decades steps out into the sunshine. He is traditionally dressed in his white thobe, but did not bother with the head covering. He half walks, half shuffles, down the street kicking up little clouds of dust in between his sandled toes. If this was England, he would be going for his morning paper but they don’t seem to have newsagents or corner shops close by in this little part of town. I would bet he will find a coffee shop and sit with his old friends to talk the Arabian version of bollocks about the state of the world, the price of oil and how they “bleddy emmets are spoiling the town”. 

The entrance into the factory is through two large arched wooden doors, the sort you’d expect to find guarding the entrance to a baronial hall or a small welsh castle. The doors open out into a rose garden, the distillery itself is a small collection of sheds to our left. Here, though we are out in the open in the middle of row upon row of the pink Damascus Rose.  These roses are supposedly a close relative of the Bulgarian Kazanlik rose, likely transplanted by the Ottoman Turks who conquered this area in the 16th century. The flower’s origin trails its roots to Persia, where it grows in plantations around Shiraz and Kashan. Enough history! The aroma is powerful enough to make one think of romance if that is at all possible. The garden is bedecked, festooned, with rose decorations over a series of arches leading down to where rose petal pickers sit in small circles around a sack. They are sitting out of the shade while they work quietly plucking petals which will go into the sheds behind them for distillation into rose oil and rose water. The factory owner puts on a little display for us. This consists of sitting on cushions while a bucket of rose petals are dropped over one’s head, confetti like. Anastasia and I watch as the two saudipinos take delight in being covered with pink petals, when she suddenly says “oh thats lovely, like a golden shower”. I’m terribly sorry but this is just too funny, especially as she bursts into laughter at what she had just said.  She creases her face with laughter and her broad smile beams joy out into the world. I think it takes a British sense of humour to pick up on this faux pas. 

Anastasia and the lesser of the evil twins.

This reminds me of something I have sorely missed, something that does not travel unless carried by its host: British humour. And when I hear it again, its absence generally is forcefully brought home. I’m not saying foreigners don’t laugh, of course they do…but they often laugh at different things, in different ways, in reference to their own cultures and histories. 

I mentioned earlier a threesome, two chaps and woman in their thirties. This is where things get a bit….weird. At the breakfast carpet, one of the chaps sits just the other side of the two Saudipinos. He is wearing red trousers and a white polo shirt. I am wearing red trousers and a white shirt. I remark on the colour coordination, trying to make light of it. His face barely cracks. In fact it doesn’t crack at all. His lack of facial expression says…nothing. I can’t read it. Perhaps he is German and does not understand what I said in jest.  I go for the obvious ‘he must be German’ because of the lack of humour and the fair hair. That’s not enough for a jury to convict, I grant, but it is good enough for my prejudices. 

So then at the factory, we of course keep bumping into each other being in the same tour group. His companions are jolly and chatty. And American. Well, she is. You can tell by the loudness of voice and complete and utter lack of self awareness. I love country stereotypes because they are so often correct. ‘Fritz’ as I shall now refer to him, walks around the tour with an expressionless face. I once or twice foolishly try to engage in a little light banter, but quickly give up. I’d get more feedback and expression from a marble bust. He kind of just lopes around looking into space. At one point Catherine catches him sitting and staring straight ahead of him, eyes fixed open, unblinking, and wide like an owl on the hunt with an expression that says ‘I will kill you”. I’m not sure if he was capable of enjoying himself. What he made of rose bushes god only knows. Perhaps he was thinking of the many ways he could kill and eat a cat. Some people have an aura about them, this chap’s was icy cold, the sort of atmosphere a paranoid psychopath might generate. Then to my horror, the American woman thinks it would be a great idea to have a picture of Omar Sherif, our guide, flanked by the two red and white evil twins. I half expected his stare into the camera to release the hounds of hell. However, he merely stands…expressionless. 

He doesn’t buy anything at the gift shop. I don’t think he is capable of empathy. He probably squeezes hamsters to death just to pass the time of day. 

The rose tour over, we part company with Fritz to head to the next venue. 

“There’s nowt so queer as folk”. 

Published by Lance Goodman

Freelance writer, bon vivant and all-round good oeuf.

2 thoughts on “I promised you a rose garden

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